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Urbana campus faculty members named University Scholars

Susan A. Martinis
Photo by
L. Brian Stauffer

Susan A. Martinis was one of six Urbana professors named University Scholars for their excellence in teaching, scholarship and service.

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9/10/2013 | Jeff Unger, News Bureau | 217-333-1085;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Six Urbana campus faculty members have been named University Scholars. The program recognizes excellence in teaching, scholarship and service. The faculty members will be honored at a campus reception Tuesday (Sept. 10) from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at the Levis Center, 919 W. Illinois St., Urbana.

Scott Ahlgren
Scott AhlgrenElvira de MejiaElvira de MejiaSilvina MontrulSilvina MontrulKevin T. Pitts
Kevin T. PittsJay Rosenstein
Jay Rosenstein
Photos by L. Brian Stauffer

Begun in 1985, the scholars program recognizes faculty excellence on the three U. of I. campuses and provides $15,000 to each scholar for each of three years to use to enhance his or her academic career. The money may be used for travel, equipment, research assistants, books or other purposes.

“Recognition of the achievements of our stellar faculty is crucial,” said Christophe Pierre, vice president for academic affairs. “It is an apt tribute to their outstanding scholarship, an investment in their future productivity and a key to our ability to retain extraordinary faculty.

“The University Scholars program had not seen an increase in the award level in 13 years. This year’s increase (from $10,000 to $15,000) reflects the importance of this award to the recipients and to the university.”

The Urbana campus recipients:

Scott Ahlgren, a professor of mathematics, conducts research on modular forms, which are ubiquitous in number theory and perhaps best known for their role in Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. They are connected to many other areas such as L-functions, elliptic curves and partitions. Ahlgren’s research involves the interplay between these areas. He is a consummate number theorist, engaging successfully with difficult and important classical and modern problems.

Elvira de Mejia, a professor of food science and human nutrition, runs a laboratory that focuses on foods that promote health and prevent chronic diseases. The long-range goal of her research program is to enhance the health of people by the identification and evaluation of the benefits of bioactive compounds in plant foods. Her research strategy focuses on three areas: chemical analyses and characterization of bioactive food compounds; biological effects of these compounds; and elucidation of their mechanisms of action.

Susan A. Martinis, a professor of biochemistry, explores the function of cellular macromolecules, particularly RNA and its interaction with proteins. She has focused her efforts on a family of proteins, the aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases, which are the linkers that add sequential amino acids to a growing protein chain. These enzymes are fundamental to every life form and are responsible for linking the genetic code to protein synthesis and its fidelity. This has proven to be a pivotal area in evolutionary biology.

Silvina Montrul, a professor of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, and of linguistics, focuses her research on the broad question of the nature of the linguistic knowledge of speakers who possess varying degrees of competency in more than one language, and what that research reveals about the mental representation of grammars in the mind. She focuses on a special type of bilingual speakers known as heritage speakers, who are typically second- or third-generation children of immigrants who grow up immersed in the weaker, home language until the onset of schooling, when the language of the community becomes their dominant language.

Kevin T. Pitts, a professor of physics, is an international leader in experimental high-energy physics and has made seminal contributions to measuring CP violation in the B meson system at the Collider-Detector Facility experiment at Fermilab. Unraveling CP violation, a tiny difference in the behavior of matter and antimatter, is essential to understanding how our universe evolved from equal parts of matter and antimatter immediately after the Big Bang to its current state of being nearly 100 percent matter.

Jay Rosenstein,
a professor of journalism, is a distinguished documentary filmmaker. His 2010 documentary, “The Lord Is Not on Trial Here Today,” won a Peabody Award. He also has won two regional Emmy awards. Since joining the journalism faculty in 2000, Rosenstein has produced a series of nationally recognized documentaries that have explored issues such as the use of Native American imagery by universities and colleges; the story of an Urbana woman who started a lesbian choir and built it into one with a national reputation; and his mother’s descent into dementia. All were broadcast nationally on hundreds of PBS stations.

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